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TELECOM IS NEXT ON THE CONTINUUM FOR 'SMART CERAMIC' MEMS COMPANY
By Matt Kelly
Small Times Correspondent
 

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Jeffrey Farmer, Continuum's CEO
Vital facts about
Continuum Photonics
 
   
 
BILLERICA, Mass., Nov. 4, 2002 – You can say that Continuum Photonics Inc. has bounced from one idea to another.

The company was founded in 1998 as a product development shop, making vibration-dampening equipment for the aerospace and defense industries. Then came a foray into athletics: Continuum designed a chipset that went into tennis rackets, sold by Head NV, that helps absorb the shock of a ball.

Up next: the risky business of telecommunications.

Continuum is using its experience in materials science to develop a “smart ceramic” switching component for optical networks. While executives are tight-lipped about the particulars, they say it will use MEMS to cut signal loss dramatically. They're aiming for customers such as Lucent Technologies, Cisco Systems Inc. or Nortel Networks Corp., which would resell the gear to telecom carriers eager to cut their signal-regeneration costs.

Despite skepticism from some corners of the telecom industry, the idea has gained attention. Continuum raised $14 million in venture capital in early July from Harris & Harris Group Inc., Flagship Ventures, Arcadian Venture Partners and others. It also pulls in revenues of several million dollars a year, thanks to licensing deals such as the Head project. The company has 42 employees.

Continuum calls its technology DirectLight SmartSilicon. It uses lead zicronate titanate as the ceramic substrate, which can expand or shrink as electric charges are supplied. Embedded silicon MEMS devices do the grunt work of sending signals along the network, and the result is an optical component that allows far less signal loss than today’s networks, according to the company.

Aaron Bent, the company's executive vice president, said Continuum demonstrated the technology to potential customers at an industry tradeshow in March. He said the company has some demonstration units now, and hopes to be ready for manufacture by early 2003. Continuum already has an agreement with Applied MEMS Inc. of Stafford, Texas, to make its micromachined components.

The idea of smart ceramics is not entirely new. Researchers first studied the concept in the 1990s, believing that piezoelectric ceramics could use changes in electrical fields to control the ceramic structure’s function. But early research found that most such ceramics were too brittle to be useful.

Nesbitt Hagood, Continuum’s chief technology officer, said Continuum’s MEMS approach solves that problem and allows for a “stiff” signal actuator. Continuum says the resulting signal loss is only 1 decibel; other technologies can be in the range of 7 decibels.

Harry Tuller, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies piezoelectric ceramics, said the hurdle for a technology like Continuum’s is to ensure that the ceramic materials work on a silicon platform. Otherwise, physical forces acting on the structure can warp the parts.

“Most of the challenge … is the integration of a ceramic technology onto a film technology,” he said.

Continuum will also face the usual manufacturing worries about stiction, aging effects and inconsistencies among each batch of switches made, Tuller added. “Can you reproduce it in batch manufacturing? That’s the key.”

Continuum’s investors believe the company can solve those problems and create a product useful in the telecom world even in today’s awful industry climate. Steve Ricci, an investor with OneLiberty Ventures who is on Continuum’s board of advisers, said enough demand exists even now to generate some revenue – not much, but sufficient for a small shop like Continuum.

Ricci also said the management team’s record of creating real products eases an investor’s worried mind. “The creativity and tenacity of the people were encouraging,” he said. “They really demonstrate what it takes to make a product. That gave comfort.”


Company file: Continuum Photonics Inc.
(last updated Nov. 4, 2002)

Company
Continuum Photonics Inc.

Headquarters
5 Fortune Drive
Billerica, Mass., 01821

History
Several MIT engineers founded Continuum in the summer of 1998 to develop vibration-dampening applications for the aerospace and defense industries. The company later developed an energy-absorbing chipset for tennis rackets, and has now moved into the telecom sphere, building subsystems for optical networking original equipment manufacturers.

Industry
Fiber optics; photonics

Employees
42

Small tech-related products and services
Continuum is developing a MEMS-based ceramic optical switch designed to reduce signal loss. The switch would be marketed to telecom giants such as Cisco, Nortel and Lucent. To develop this switch, Continuum is using proprietary DirectLight SmartSilicon technology, bringing together “smart” materials, microfabrication techniques and low-loss, redundant electronics.

Management

  • Jeffrey Farmer: chief executive officer
  • Aaron Bent: executive vice president of business development
  • Nesbitt Hagood: chief technology officer

    Selected strategic partners and customers

  • Tennis racket maker Head NV (chipset customer)
  • Applied MEMS (fabrication partner)

    Revenue
    Continuum says it brings in several million dollars a year due mainly to licensing arrangements such as the Head relationship. According to VentureSource (a VentureOne client publication), the company earned $2 million in revenues during 2000 and $6 million during 2001.

    Investment history
    Self-funded for over two years, Continuum closed a $1.7 million seed round in the fall of 2000. That round was led by the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp. and included private investors as well as Arcadian Capital Management and Gainesborough LLC. In May 2002, the company garnered $14.2 million in funding from its original investors and new participants Harris & Harris Group, Flagship Ventures and Prism Venture Partners (the latter two firms co-led the round).

    Barriers to market
    The telecom market remains in a major slump.

    Selected competitors

  • Agere Systems Inc.
  • Alcatel
  • Tellium Inc.

    Goals
    Short-term: Develop a final model ready for mass-manufacture by 2003. Long-term: Sell the switch to vendors such as Lucent, Cisco Systems and Nortel.

    Why they're in small tech
    “There’s a certain function we want to do, that you can’t do any other way," said Nesbitt Hagood, chief technology officer. "We’d love to try other technology, but you need MEMS to do this.”

    What keeps them up at night
    “The market conditions," said Aaron Bent, executive vice president. "How quickly will carriers start spending on next-generation technology?”

    Contact

  • URL: http://www.continuumphotonics.com/
  • Phone: 978-670-4910
  • Fax: 978-670-4915
  • E-mail:

    Selected relevant patent
    Composites for structural control

    Recent news
    Continuum Photonics raises over $14 million in second round of financing
    Applied MEMS to develop Continuum’s switches

    – Research by Gretchen McNeely

     

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